Concert Piano Preparation – part I

Most piano technicians have the opportunity to experience many different facets of piano work. While comparatively few of us actually specialize in tuning and preparation of fine concert instruments, I think most of us, at one time or another, are called on to perform this service. My first concert tuning experience came when I was barely three months out of tuning school. The pianist was famous and I was nervous. Nothing really terrible happened on that occasion, and for the next few years, one of my regular duties was to care for that same piano whenever it was used in a concert. When I took this university job a few years ago, I assumed responsibility for a stable of concert grands now numbering five (representing three different makes) which are used for both performing and recording. In addition, I frequently take calls to tune for performances at different halls in the city. Since most technicians may expect to do this sort of work at some time, I would like to share some of what has “rubbed off” on me so far, during my own continuing education.
Like nearly all areas of piano work, concert piano preparation consists of two basic types of work: working with pianos, and working with people. These two aspects are equally important and necessary; no matter how brilliant the technician, if he can’t communicate and assume certain responsibilities toward the people who are necessarily involved with the piano, he will ultimately fail. I’ve found that customers are usually quite willing to exchange a small amount of technical brilliance for a large amount of conscientious and responsible behaviour. On the other hand, a technician may have “personality plus,” always be on time, and charge the lowest rates in town, but without technical expertise, will not be able to “cut it” where piano performance is a critical factor. So, both are necessary. Let’s talk first about working with pianos.
Even if you have the job of caring for a given concert piano on a long-term basis, tuning is the job you will be asked to do most often. Tuning is still an indispensible job before each performance. When we speak of concert tuning, we imply that it is somehow different than ordinary, everyday tuning. Actually, I think of only one real difference.’ That difference deals with the concept of “point of diminishing returns,” a point which is reached much sooner with the average home piano than with the average concert grand. What it means is this: on a good concert grand, it is worth our time to be especially nit-picky about our tuning, because the extra time spent translates to a discernable difference in the finished product. This would apply to the areas of regulation and voicing as well.
Within the realm of “concert” tuning, every part of the tuning is important, but we must give special emphasis to unisons and tuning stability. At this point, I still hold with the belief that beatless unisons are important to a tuning because of the crisp, clean effect they give it. I have yet to be convinced that a unison with a two-cent spread is in any way desirable. Unisons drift rapidly enough without our setting them “on the edge” to begin with, and the average layman will complain about bad unisons long before hearing misaligned octaves or uneven temperaments. For these reasons, we should pay close attention to unisons, going over them two or even three times in the course of a concert tuning.
The other area of special emphasis is tuning stability. Conditions are often aggravated by circumstances surrounding the piano, such as temperature and humidity fluctuations in the hall, the fact that concert instruments are often brought in from somewhere else, and must readjust to the hall, and the fact that, in performance, a piano often undergoes extremely heavy playing. In light of these factors, we must make sure that, when we tune the piano, we are hitting the keys at least as hard as the pianist will, and that, before tuning, the piano has acclimated as well as possible.
I will never forget the time I had to hurry through a concert tuning and managed not to hit some of the keys as hard as I should have. Sitting in the fourth row at the concert that evening, I was mortified to hear Bb50 suddenly become a very wild unison during a stressful part of the Schumann Fantasy. Thereafter, the note was played often in some very exposed melodic passages, and I cringed each time I heard it. At intermission I hurried onto the stage to touch up the unison, and was greeted by a smattering of applause. As I bent over the piano, someone shouted, “It’s the Bb!” Needless to say, I was thoroughly embarrassed.
By thoughtful practice, a technician can overcome problems with unison tuning and tuning stability. Tuning tutors can be helpful even to experienced tuners, sometimes spotting small deficiencies which have become ingrained in our technique over the years. I find it instructive to watch others tune and see their methods of pin-setting. By experimenting with different hammer techniques and measuring slippage with a good electronic tuning aid, a tuner can learn a lot about which method works best for him or her. A machine with one-tenth cent accuracy is a great help in honing unison tuning as well.
One other aspect of tuning that is sometimes critical is the…
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